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By Daniel Lammin
13th November 2013

Earlier this year, filmmaker Alex Gibney released his tremendous documentary ‘We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks’, a "biography" of the website and organisation that caused an international crisis and changed the face of information distribution. The story of the creation of WikiLeaks, however, is such rich material that a feature film was inevitable, and we have our first major attempt to dramatise the story with ‘The Fifth Estate’, featuring an impressive international cast and its own controversies to boot.

At the centre of the film is the relationship between the two men who pushed WikiLeaks into the spotlight. Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) is a young computer whiz who finds himself in the orbit of enigmatic Australian hacker Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), creator of a new website which allows whistleblowers to release information anonymously and securely. Together, the two men take on corruption and institutions, making a name for themselves but barely leaving a scratch on the world stage. And then one day, Julian reveals that he has on his hands the greatest security leak in human history: thousands of classified U.S. documents, and his relationship with Daniel, and the website itself, are pushed beyond their boundaries.

Working from two published memoirs, screenwriter Josh Singer has crafted a zippy, if occasionally clunky, screenplay that effectively dramatises a narrative set mostly inside the world of the computer. Rather than placing Assange as the protagonist, we see the anarchic icon through the eyes of Berg, first intoxicated and then horrified by the man. There’s a focus here on personal relationships, and attempts to understand the psychology of the purposefully enigmatic Assange, yet acceptance that such an enigma can never be fully explained. It also opens up the narrative to a wider context, showing the careful planning undertaken by The Guardian in their work with the website, and the response from the U.S. government to the leak and its consequences. Thankfully, it leaves Assange’s sex scandal as a postscript in the film’s coda, another story entirely that would have made the film far too complicated.


Director Bill Condon, known mostly for directing his own screenplays, might not seem the obvious choice to helm the move, or even the most promising after a string of very lacklustre films, but his work here is his best since ‘Gods and Monsters’ (1998). There’s a great visual flair, not dissimilar to that of ‘We Steal Secrets’, and it keeps the film cracking along at a great pace, even with so many scenes of characters sitting static. Occasionally, the editing can be a bit frenetic, but this is never too distracting. One particularly clever move is an attempt to create a visual representation of WikiLeaks, which helps to give the audience a clear picture of the way Assange’s organisation works. It reveals a lot, both about the infrastructure of the website, but also the density of Assange himself. This isn’t groundbreaking filmmaking by any stretch, but it helps make ‘The Fifth Estate’ an exciting experience.

What really bolsters the film are its performances. The level of detail in Cumberbatch’s performance is very impressive, from the strange textures of Assange’s accent to the quiet intensity that must make up a man so driven by a singular ideal. Much of the final act of the film relies on revelations of Assange’s psychology, and Cumberbatch walks that line beautifully. He never judges his character, but also isn’t afraid to be ugly. Daniel Bruhl is also excellent, especially at capturing the everyman quality of Berg. His journey is of a man blinded by ideals who is brought crashing down by reality, and Bruhl handles that with intelligence and humanity. Assange might be the marquee character, but the film belongs to Berg, and Bruhl’s work is just as impressive as his co-star. There are also terrific performances from David Thelwes as Nick Davies, their contact at The Guardian, and Laura Linney as U.S. security attaché Sarah Shaw.

There’s a focus here on personal relationships, and attempts to understand the psychology of the purposefully enigmatic Assange.

Prior to its release, ‘The Fifth Estate’ was attacked by WikiLeaks for presenting an inaccurate and biased version of events, and this seems to have caused the film some harm. However, as the film itself points out in a bold and eloquent move in its final minutes, what is truth and what is exaggeration are very hard to discern when only one side will talk. No doubt details have been exaggerated (Hollywood films have never pretended to be bastions of the whole truth), but perhaps that’s the point. The saga of the creation of WikiLeaks and the security leak that made it legendary is so complicated and convoluted, truth and clarity might be beyond us, as much as the thousands of documents the website released in 2010. True transparency and clarity might be more complicated than idealists like to think.

At its heart, this is what ‘The Fifth Estate’ asks, if sometimes clumsily, whether we can ever understand the truth about something when there are so many "truths" to deal with. If Shakespeare were working today, this epic narrative of giant minds at war would be right up his alley. Regardless of which truth it tells though, ‘The Fifth Estate’ is a film worth watching. Structured like the most effective of thrillers and headed by the cracking chemistry between its two leads, it’s a fascinating, occasionally bold and often thrilling breakdown of an important moment in history and the two men at the centre of it.

RELEASE DATE: 14/11/2013
RUN TIME: 2h 8m
CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch
Daniel Bruhl
Laura Linney
Anthony Mackle
David Thewlis
DIRECTOR: Bill Condon
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